TITLE: Lengthen, Then Strengthen AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 16, 2009 11:36 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Update: I've added a link to a known use. (A pattern I've seen in running that applies more broadly.) You are developing a physical skill or an ability that will take you well beyond your current level of performance. Perhaps you are a non-runner preparing for a 5K, or a casual runner training for a marathon, or an experienced runner coming back from a layoff. To succeed, you will need endurance, the ability to perform steadily over a long period. You will also need strength, the ability to perform at a higher speed or with greater power over a shorter period of time. Endurance enables you to last for an amount of time longer than usual. It requires you to develop your slow-twitch muscles and your aerobic capacity, which depends on effective delivery of oxygen to your muscles. Strength enables you to work faster or harder, such as uphill or against an irregular force. It requires you to develop your fast-twitch muscles and your anaerobic capacity, which depends on muscles working effectively in the absence of oxygen. You might try to develop strength first. Strength training involves many repetitions of intense work done for short durations. When you are beginning your training, you can handle short durations more easily than long ones. The high intensity will be uncomfortable, but it won't last for long. This does not work very well. First, you won't be able to work at an intense enough level to train your muscles properly, which means that your training sessions will not be as effective as you'd hope. Second, because your muscles are still relatively week, subjecting them to intense work even for short periods greatly increases the risk of injury. You might try to develop strength and endurance in parallel. This is a strategy commonly tried by people who are in a hurry to reach a specific level of performance. You do longer periods of low-intensity work on some days and longer periods of high-intensity work on others. This strengthens your both your slow- and fast-twitch muscles and allows you to piggyback growth in one area on top of growth in the other. Unfortunately, this does not work well, either. There is a small decrease in the risk of injury from your strength training, but not as much as you might think. Our bodies adapt to change rather slowly, which means that your muscles don't grow stronger fast enough to prepare them for the intensity of strength training. Even when you don't injure yourself, you increase the risk of plateauing or fatigue. Therefore, build a strong aerobic base first. Train for several weeks or even months at a relatively low level of intensity, resting occasionally to give your body a chance to adapt. This will build endurance, with slower speed or less power than you might want, but also strengthen your muscles, joints, and bones. Only then add to your regimen exercises that build your anaerobic capacity through many repetitions of high-intensity, short-duration activities. These will draw on the core strength developed earlier. Continue to do workouts focused on endurance. These will give your body a chance to recover from the higher intensity workouts and time to adapt to those stresses in the form of more speed or power. For all but the most serious athletes, one or two strength workouts a week are sufficient. Doing more increases the risk of injury, fatigue, or loss of interest in training. As in so many endeavors, steady, regular practice tends to be much more valuable than occasional or spotty practice. This is especially true when the goal requires a long period of preparation, such as a marathon. Examples. Every training program I have ever seen for runners, from 5Ks up to marathons, emphasizes the need for a strong aerobic base before before worrying about speed or other forms of power. This is especially true for beginners. Some beginners are eager to improve quickly and often don't realize how hard training can be on their bodies. Others fear that is they are not working "hard enough" they are not making progress. Low-intensity endurance training does work your body hard enough, just not in short bursts that make you strain. Greg McMillan describes the usual form this pattern takes as well as a variation in Time To Rethink Your Marathon Training Program?. In its most common form, a runner first builds aerobic base, then works on strength in the form of hills and tempo runs, and finally works on speed. Gabriele Rosa, whom McMillan calls "arguably the world's greatest marathon coach", structures his training programs differently. He still starts his athletes with a significant period building aerobic base (Lengthen) followed by by a period that develops anaerobic capability (Strengthen). But he starts the anaerobic phase with short track workouts that develop the runners speed, down to 200m intervals, and only then has the runner move to strength workouts. Rosa's insight is that "the goal in marathon training is to fatigue the athlete with the duration of the workouts and not the speed, so speed needed to be developed first". This variation may not work well for runners coming back from injuries or who are otherwise prone to injury, because the speed workouts stress the body in a more extreme way than the tempo and cruise workouts of longer-distance strength work. Lengthen, then Strengthen applies even to more experienced runners coming back from periods of little or no training. Many such runners assume that they can quickly return to the level they were at before the layoff, but the body will have adapted to the lower level of exertion and require retraining. Elite athletes returning from injury usually take several months to build their aerobic base before resuming hard training regimens. I have written this pattern from the perspective of running, but it applies to other physical activities, too, such as biking and swimming. The risk of injury in some sports is lower than in running, due to less load on muscles, joints, and bones, but the principles of endurance and strength are the same. Related Ideas. I think this pattern is also present in some forms of learning. For example, it is useful to build attention span and vocabulary when learning learning a new discipline before trying to build critical skills or deep expertise. The gentler form of learning provides a base of knowledge that is required for expert analysis or synthesis. I realize that this application of the pattern is speculative. If you have any thoughts about it, or the pattern more generally, please let me know. -----